Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
At first glance, members of Gypsy Karavan appear exotic in their richly colored garb accentuated with shimmery gold belts and gossamer scarves, dancing to a soundtrack of Middle Eastern music.
But as the songs gave way to more familiar numbers like “Minnie the Moocher” by Cab Calloway and Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans,” residents of Angelina House, a Jacksonville senior residential facility, start getting into the performance by the women there to dance for them.
More specifically, to belly dance for them.
“It was all in good clean fun,” said resident Roseanne Johanson, who, along with two others from Angelina House, took part in the show with a tambourine performance.
“There was nothing X-rated, it was nice, clean fun and there wasn’t anything that I was afraid to participate in,” she said, then grinned. “I sat there and banged my tambourine and did a little of my good stuff.”
Fellow resident and tambourine-shaker Shannon Cobb called the performance “very graceful to see,” especially enjoying the dance that Angelina House activities director Edith Fudge did with a scimitar.
“That impresses me every time she’s done that dance,” said Cobb, who has seen the troupe perform before. “We really got it into it here.”
Fudge, founder and director of Gypsy Karavan, said her hope is to create a kind of variety show with music, dance, poetry and other forms of art that provides family-friendly entertainment.
Most importantly, though, the troupe wants to help educate the public about belly dance, which she calls an art form very similar to the Hawaiian hula dance; that it is nothing at all “like what runs through people’s minds.
“When you say belly dance, people’s minds go in a direction that give dancers a bad name,” she said. “They ask me, ‘you don’t take anything off, do you?’ – that’s where a lot of people’s minds go with belly dancing. They automatically go to the (stripper’s) pole. But it’s like, ‘I’m sorry, but my clothes do not come off!’”
Or, she’ll get the inevitable ‘You don’t sit on people’s laps, do you?’
“No, I do not sit in anybody’s lap. But it’s those strange comments that you get, and then they’ll get this ‘I’m not exactly sure what you do’ look (on their faces), so I just tell them to come to one of our shows,” Fudge said. “Because to me, belly dance is a mixture between waltzing and ballet.”
The dance is closely associated with the Arabic culture, and until after the mid-1800s, it was not known to the outside world until “Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt in 1798 sparked Europeans’ interest in the Arab world,” according to the website www.aleenah.com, which outlines a history of belly dance.
However, the culture was promoted in a way “completely untrue to the reality of Middle Eastern culture,” suggesting that belly dance was “a dance of seduction,” when in reality, “because of the traditional gender segregation, Middle Eastern women usually only danced in female company among friends and family (although) sometimes a professional dancer and musicians were invited to a women's gathering.”
Americans first got the opportunity to see belly dancing at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, which included a “Streets of Cairo” exhibit that featured authentic Middle Eastern and North African countries.
However, “it was the dancers of the ‘Egyptian Theater’ who gained the most notoriety,” encouraged by fair promoter Sol Bloom’s use of sensationalism to publicize the event. According to the site, he “allegedly invented the name ‘bellydance’ to use in his advertising campaign,” because, during that era, it was socially unacceptable to expose any part of the human anatomy, the site states.
Hence belly dance’s reputation in this country as a racy, erotic dance “seen only at vaudeville, burlesque and carnival sideshows,” the website states.
But as troupes like Gypsy Karavan elevate the dance back to the art form that it is, others have discovered belly dance as a popular means of exercise.
“It’s a very good form of exercise,” said troupe member MJ Stine, who, for several years, has been taking a belly dance class offered by Karri Duke through the Tyler Junior College Continuing Education department.
Many of the women in the class are between ages 50 and 70, enjoying how “a lot of it is just strictly dance moves that give you exercise,” she said, adding that the class is a kind of “a girls’ night out (with participants getting) to do something they’ve always wanted to do, but never thought they’d get to do. It’s just fun.”
It’s been a dozen years or more since Stine first took up the dance after reading a newspaper article about an area belly dance group.
“I thought, ‘Ooh – that looks like fun.’ I liked the costumes, the exotic looks of it,” she said. “And it was also about doing something I didn’t know how to do. It just appealed to me. And I told my husband I was going to take classes.”
Fudge said she was drawn to belly dance after watching a woman perform at a renaissance faire “and thought how graceful and bright (she appeared), and (was struck by) the confidence she had in herself.
“The dancer was overweight and was an average-looking woman, but when she began to dance her persona changed,” she recalled. “It’s hard to describe, but I told my husband, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Years later, “after the children had left the house, I got the chance to try belly dance (and) I fell in love with it – I feel like that dancer (from) so many years ago, who transformed in front of my eyes,” Fudge said.
Belly dance, she pointed out, incorporates moves that “are natural to a woman’s body,” and the costumes – “the big skirts, jingling coins, wings, veils and tambourines all make you feel like you are the center of everything around you. … I enjoy it, it’s a lot of fun.”
The group formed several years ago after Fudge, who performed solo for about a year, “mentioned to (Stine) that the shows needed someone besides just me,” she recalled.
Stine suggested other dancers join the performances, “and Gypsy Karavan was born,” she said.
Members hail from Lindale, Van, Tyler, Whitehouse, Flint, Rusk and Jacksonville, and have done shows in Jacksonville, Athens and Tyler senior residential centers. They also perform each spring at the Four Winds Renaissance faire, outside Troupe.
The women pick their own music to dance to, “and sometimes it reflects their personality,” Fudge said. “This is just one of the reasons that I believe that American belly dancers have come up with their own form of the dance – it’s interesting to watch (someone) belly dance to Neil Diamond or Elvis.”
The music, the costumes and the props help to create a relaxed, fun atmosphere, and Fudge addresses the audience throughout the performance to draw them into the spirit of things.
Said Stine, “It doesn’t turn anybody off, but it makes them happy, I think.”
Angelina House resident Billie Jean Petri, part of the tambourine trio who helped entertain fellow residents during the Gypsy Karavan performance, was “pleased at the way we did – I thought it worked out and I wasn’t ashamed (of her own role).”
She encouraged others to catch a performance to see what the dance is really about.
“I think people need to go see it – it didn’t matter what type of dancing they were doing, it was very entertaining,” she said. “I just enjoyed it, and I’d like to see another (performance).”
“It was very heartwarming to see you dancing all together,” Johan-sen told Fudge. “It made you want to get up and dance, too.”